On the acknowledgements page of A Dark House, Ian Colford mentions the eight stories were written between 15 and 25 years ago, a period during which he regarded publication as an “impossibly lofty goal.” In passing, the Haligonian also recalls “months and, in some cases, years of revision and rewriting.” The care Colford has taken is evident throughout this altogether excellent – immediate, sobering, intriguing – collection that examines fallible characters at pivotal moments.
Recounting a brief, disastrous journey, “Stone Temple,” the first and shortest piece, sets the tone. Protagonist Bobby Flint’s wife has been granted sole custody of their three-year-old son, Luke. Bobby reacts by kidnapping the child at daybreak on a frigid February morning. Bobby envisions fleeing Nova Scotia and starting over again with Luke in Ontario; he is also eager to avoid devolving into a stereotypical angry male – his father’s “only legacy.” Marooned on a snowed-over back road, Bobby realizes the profound error of his impulsive plan; he begins to hate what he’s done (and must do) while also concluding he has no other choice.
Childhood isn’t nearly as precarious in other stories. “The Music Lover,” imbued with a melancholic tone that echoes James Joyce’s Dubliners, sketches a wintry season for Annie, whose well-off but deeply miserable parents have hired a violin teacher for their “dull” child. Annie’s instructor, a “hopeless drunk” according to Annie’s father, offers her cold comfort via a story about his own foolish father in the Warsaw Ghetto. In “On the Beach,” 10-year-old Sara observes her troubled single mother befriend an unstable neighbour and embark on a drunken shoplifting spree.
The quandaries of older men are fodder for exploration, too. At 65, David in “McGowan on the Mount” is a “crabby old slob with a limp and no clean clothes.” He surveys a long life that has come to practically nothing – a “threadbare existence that was both crippling and demeaning.” Summoning his own “fractured species of wisdom” results in a hopeful change of scenery and outlook. “The Dictator Considers Its Regime” is the collection’s outlier, insofar as it’s set in Portugal in the early 1970s and is broken into discrete sections. The story ponders free will, inertia, and courage as it charts how action and inaction determine historical outcomes.
“The Comfort of Knowing,” a far lighter entry, focuses on a self-righteous Nova Scotian civics teacher who disavows being “a holier-than-thou type.” His outrage at his younger sister’s “improprieties” blinds him to the pain he causes and his own innumerable failings. The professors in “The Ugly Girl” and “A Dark House” – literary portraits of hobbled self-awareness – are likewise fated to serious stumbles and misperceptions despite their own certainty in their intellectual capacities.
Colford’s stories resonate in part because of the tremendous empathy (or disdain) they generate. In contrast, Seyward Goodhand subordinates sentiment in favour of academic and formal play in her debut collection, Even That Wildest Hope. The 10 complex, determinedly fabulous stories impress for sheer quirky inventiveness, even if they feature little to engage with on an emotional level.
Take “The Parachute,” for example. Recovering from a bladder infection at her Berlin villa in 1941, notorious German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has her art director and best friend, Isabella Ahland, read her a 1939 essay titled “The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force” by Emile Novis (one of the pen names adopted by the tubercular French intellectual Simone Weil). Some 30 pages later, all three women find themselves thrust together aboard an airplane, where they tussle over interpersonal politics while scoring philosophical points. The following story, “Hansel, Gretel, and Katie,” takes place on a dystopian prairie farm where a widow fends for herself while facing starvation, men with Tasers, and roving feral children. In “Embassy Row,” a wealthy (if bored) group of diplomats from “various United Nations” who reside in “monolith” mansions spend their evenings acting “endearingly sadistic to one another” and wrecking home appliances. Playing so fast and furious with invention, the stories risk frustrating puzzled readers.
Like Mark Leyner’s early stories (and, to a lesser degree, the stories in Paige Cooper’s recent collection, Zolitude), Even That Wildest Hope includes sci-fi parables, fable-like tales, and, in the case of 40-page “Endiku” (narrated by a figure from The Epic of Gilgamesh), revisionist metafiction. Other stories are fantastical, despite unfolding in real-world places such as Winnipeg. Whimsical and odd, “So I Can Win, the Galatrax Must Die” invents a rare beast that looks like an otter and serves as a “miraculous superfood,” eaten raw while the creature is still alive. Whimsical and beguiling, and running a breezy 10 pages, this entry contains just the perfect degree of oddness and sincere storytelling.